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CNN International




Internet car registration to be option

The Houston Chronicle
July 28, 2000
Web posted at: 10:34 AM EDT (1434 GMT)

AUSTIN, Texas (The Houston Chronicle) -- Houston drivers will be able to renew their vehicle registration over the Internet come September, as the state moves toward making such services possible by computer.

By winter, some Texans may be able to renew their driver's licenses online as well, officials said.

The Texas Transportation Commission signed off on the online vehicle registration plan Thursday. Initially, Harris, Dallas and Lubbock counties are testing the plan first. Lubbock's has been up and running since March.

If Harris County's system runs well -- starting with noncommercial vehicles -- it will be shared with Galveston, Brazoria, Montgomery, Liberty and Waller counties, officials said.

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"We expect several thousand people to go online instead of in line," said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt.

"There's probably about 10 percent of the populace that could use it. I can't give people a discount, but I can give them back their time and that's worth more than even pure money in this economy," Bettencourt said.

Although only a handful of counties was authorized to try the concept, transportation officials hope residents of all 254 Texas counties eventually will be able to use the speed and convenience of computers to dispense with the annual chore of registration renewal.

Most Texans currently renew by mail, rather than wait in line.

The eight counties tested first "were the ones either pursuing online registration already or had expressed strong interest in doing so," said Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Viesca. "It's just a matter of getting these counties going, seeing what it's going to take and then hopefully expanding."

Who can participate?

The service will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through county tax assessor Web sites. A charge of $3 will be applied to cover credit card and other processing costs, and some motorists won't be eligible for the service -- if their registration is expired or if their vehicle failed an emissions test.

"It's not a true, all-automated system. There's still going to be some human interaction, especially at the county tax office," Viesca said. That's because information provided by motorists to prove they have mandatory insurance coverage, as well as emissions and safety inspections, still will be validated by county workers, he said.

"If your record is flagged because you failed to get your car taken care of, and it's still classified as a gross polluter, you're not going to be able to renew online. That flag is going to be on your record," Viesca said.

"We don't want people trying to get around the law to use the Internet system. There are still going to be checks and balances."

Thirteen states already allow online vehicle registration renewals, but none has more than 10 percent participation, officials said.

In Texas, with 17.4 million registered vehicles, the vast majority of motorists renew their registrations by mail for a $1 fee. Others pay in person at a tax office for no charge, or they go to a title company or supermarket and pay a fee.

But with a growing population in Texas and increasing use of computers, there's no better time to try the online approach, Bettencourt said.

"We know the population in Harris County will double in 30 years, so this is one way to lower costs and improve customer service at the same time," he said.

"The renewal notices that start going out (in late September) will start featuring this as a service," he said.

In Lubbock, Tax Assessor-Collector Stephen P. Watt said online registration of vehicles has been well received since it began in March, but still makes up an "extremely low" percentage of registrations.

"It's surpassed my expectations for the acceptance it would receive. It's something that will build slowly as more and more people get used to government services being on the Internet," he said. "Nobody wants to wait in line."

That goes for people seeking to renew their driver's licenses, according to Texas Department of Public Safety officials who are in the process of finding a contractor to implement an online license renewal system.

"We should have a contract with one of the companies in the next couple of weeks. It will obviously take more than a month or two" to implement, said DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange.

Authorization for the change came from the 1999 Legislature, which also gave approval for the DPS to accept credit card payments that will enable the online license renewals.

The new online systems won't help you, though, if you're a new resident or getting your first license or registration.

"When you're a first-time application, you have to come in anyway to have your picture taken and take the test. Or if you're new from another state, we're going to have to issue you a new driver's license," Mange said.

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